Alice Fordham

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Syria's highly questionable, and carefully choreographed, election leaves many people concerned about how it may embolden President Bashar al-Assad. NPR's Alice Fordham has been talking with people inside Syria and in neighboring Beirut.

Tuesday's elections in Syria are sure to result in another term for President Bashar Assad, even as the international community says his regime is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.

The opposition is railing against his inevitable triumph.

At a demonstration Friday by some of the 1 million Syrians who have fled into neighboring Lebanon, the view on the election was clear.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are casting their votes ahead of Syria's presidential election next week. The election is seen as Bashar Assad's rigged bid for legitimacy — but many refugees believe that if they don't vote, they'll never be allowed back home.

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Smuggling is a way of life in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, just over the border from Syria. Driving along it, you see pale smugglers' trails snaking through mountain passes, and the guys who run touristy little antiques stores here say they can get you anything.

"Everything that have traditions and everything found in old houses," says Reda Ismail, who runs one of the many stores in the valley. Dealers say most things here are smuggled from Syria, and Ismail thinks these days it's more prevalent.

To check into Beirut's Holiday Inn these days, you need a permit from the army and the stamina to climb 26 flights of decaying stairs to the concrete carcass of a restaurant at the top that used to rotate.

This towering edifice may not look it today, but it was once the toast of Beirut, the most glamorous city in the Middle East before the 1975-'90 civil war turned the Lebanese capital into a byword for urban dystopia.

A stroll through the Baghdad Book Fair last month was a lesson in today's cultural norms in Iraq. The books — gold-embossed, neatly arrayed — were almost all religious, and most of the customers were men.

But in the middle of the white pavilion, a woman's voice rang out loud and strong. Fawzia al-Babakhan, a lawyer, delivered a blistering critique of a proposed law that would rewrite the rules for matters such as marriage and inheritance according to Shiite Islamic law.

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The beginning of the end of the two-year siege of Old Homs came as green buses full of fighters bounced down uneven streets Wednesday — a scene that was captured in a photo that was retweeted hundreds of times.

The Syrian regime may be on the verge of an important gain in its civil war. Rebels say they have agreed to a conditional retreat from areas they hold in the city of Homs.

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Iraqis are voting for Parliament Wednesday for the first time since American soldiers withdrew more than two years ago. Without their support, and amid intense violence, the poll will test Iraq's fragile democracy to its limits.

The election is for the 328-seat Parliament and offers more than 9,000 candidates on party lists. It will probably end up with no party winning a majority and lead to weeks or months of coalition haggling to form a new government.

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Low to the dusty ground, by a reed-fringed river and a lush date palm orchard, is the farmhouse where Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, grew up.

The place is Junaja, one of hundreds of poor, Shiite Muslim farming towns in southern Iraq. Donkey carts jog alongside battered buses. No monument, no ostentation honors Maliki. The only new thing in town is the mosque.

Sunday is the deadline for Syrian President Bashar Assad to hand over his government's chemical weapons stockpile, and he will have surrendered the vast majority of his declared arsenal.

Some call this a triumph. Others say Assad used the deal to buy time for brutal offensives in the civil war raging through the country. Western governments are investigating reports of more chemical attacks, although Russian officials said Friday that Assad's forces did not use chemical weapons.

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The renegade Islamist group known as ISIS now controls swaths of Syria and Iraq, and it's partly because the fighters are so rich. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is known for having the biggest guns and paying the highest salaries.

While kidnapping, oil smuggling and donations from sympathizers have been well-known sources of money, the groups also run complex and brutal protection rackets, according to analysts.

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Violence has reignited in western Iraq, with Islamist fighters taking over much of Anbar province three months ago. A renegade al-Qaida group has set up its headquarters in Fallujah — the city where hundreds of U.S. soldiers died a decade ago, trying to wrest it from insurgent control.

But this time, the enemy isn't the U.S. and it's not just extremists fighting. Ordinary Sunnis in Anbar, furious at what they call years of discrimination by the Shiite-dominated government, have joined the militants' battle against the Iraqi army.

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The extremists now committing a wave of attacks in Iraq's Anbar province are better trained, funded and equipped than the al-Qaida-linked groups American soldiers battled there, says Brett McGurk, one of the State Department's top officials for Iraq.

The militants, who have drawn strength amid the war in Syria over the border, have taken over parts of Anbar over the last three months.

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Riding the bus to Beirut's southern suburbs used to be a bumpy, crowded but fun experience. Everyone crammed in next to each other, bouncing around on the way to the area they call the Dahiyeh, the Arabic word for "suburb."

This sprawling southern district of Lebanon's capital is the place where the Shiite militant group Hezbollah enjoys its strongest support. But it is also a bustling, residential area. There are garages and vegetable stalls. And in the center of the neighborhood, there are juice bars and cafes.

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